Craze for Culatello

By Fiona Sims

Craze for Culatello

I want a meat slicer. A vintage hand-operated Berkel meat slicer. I’ve even found one on Ebay that I’m keeping my eye on. Why the fascination? I’ve just come back from Parma.

Yes, that’s Parma of the Italian air-dried ham fame, also home to Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s a gorgeous city - rich in history, with great restaurants, fabulous markets, a celebrated theatre and a strong café culture. Why Ryanair stopped flying here is a mystery.

It was the Romans that put Parma on the map. Yes, it was handily situated as a trading route, located as it is in the middle of the Emilia-Romagna region, which these days is just an hour’s drive from Milan and Bologna, or two hours from Venice, but it also has the Po River, which offers a guaranteed humidity and biting cold winters – both of which are essential for curing ham. And the Romans were rather partial to cured ham.

Combine that with the region’s continuing artisanal ways (even on a large scale) and we’ve been enjoying the ham ever since – me, particularly. Not just Parma ham, either, but other salumi – and particularly culatello. If you love the former, then you’ll adore the latter.

In fact, culatello is the reason we’ve jumped in a cab in old town Parma on a freezing Friday in the middle of winter to drive north for 25 minutes to the small Po River Valley village of Colorno. Our destination? Al Vedel, a restaurant-cum-culatello producer.

Made from the muscular part of the pig’s hind leg, Culatello di Zibello, to give it it’s proper name, gets its characteristic sweetness and aroma from that thick fog that rolls off the Po and those biting cold winters, explains chef-owner Enrico Bergonzi, as we work our way through a selection, aged at 16, 26 and 38 months (I like the oldest one best).

At €16 for one portion, it costs three times the price of a plate of Parma ham but there are just 23 producers that make it in eight surrounding villages and it’s worth the flight alone – rich, peppery, aromatic.

How does it differ from Parma ham, exactly? Parma ham is cured on the bone and it needs the drier climate of Langhirano, a town in the hills south of Parma. Culatello, meanwhile, is cured off the bone inside a natural casing - made of pig’s bladder, Bergonzi tells us, and languishes in the humidity of the land around the Po River, ageing in brick cellars with windows that are opened and closed (so wonderfully low-tech) to let in the tendrils of fog which help aid the curing process.

By comparison on the palate, Parma ham tastes sweeter and tenderer while culatello is more savoury, with flavours that intensify the more that you chew. And we scoff an indecent amount, always freshly sliced, as we discover that this is key to its enjoyment (hence my recent Berkel obsession).

You see your average Parmigiano would never buy ham ready sliced. A meat slicer is the first thing they buy when they set up home, along with a coffee machine. Culatello et al is all about eating it freshly sliced - before it loses its sought after fragrance and intensity.

We follow it with excellent nettle ravioli stuffed with more culatello, and then cotechino, a local sausage, served with potatoes that have been mashed with terrifying amounts of Parmigiano-Reggiano and butter (the cheese is in pretty much everything you order here), rounding off with a homemade vanilla icecream with an astonishing silkiness.

To wash it all down? More red Lambrusco - another new infatuation (see this month’s We Like). But then it’s easy to get obsessed here.

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